Three handmade ceramics, first a bowl lying on its side, second a vase with handles, third an urn with the lid off

The language of pottery: what you need to know

Tamra Booth, Keeeps

Pottery is full of interesting terms that sometimes aren't quite what they first seem. I often have had to look up different pottery terms in different books or online articles before I eventually get the gist.

Take 'throwing', for example. Now you would think this means what it says on the tin - throwing the clay down with a satisfactory 'slap'. But no, this is the term that potters use for the actual process of moulding and shaping clay on a wheel. In fact, throwing is the entire wheel journey, from the point that you throw the clay into the centre of the wheel, until the point that you wire cut your piece from the wheel. 'Throwing' often becomes an obsession for many potters, while others concentrate on 'hand building'.

'Ball clay' - nope, this is not a ball of clay that you circle in the palm of your hands, this is a type of clay - pale in colour with high plasticity.

One pottery term that actually is what it says, even though you might not have realised despite the screamingly obvious name, is 'Bone china'. It is indeed a clay body with a quantity of bone ash in the recipe. 

Have you come across 'fettling'? Well, try saying it a few times, it starts to sound like 'fiddling'! Anyhoo, what a great word that is used to describe when you trim the rough edges of your leather-hard or dry pottery and sponge it clean, before firing.

Now here's a word that throws me every time. Potters call the base of a piece of pottery the 'foot'. More specifically, the circle of clay at the base of a pot that raises it from the surface is called a 'foot ring'. Remember that and you'll be down with the potters!

Who remembers plasticine? I used to love those ribbed strips of modelling clay as a child, and it never dried out unless you left it out for days. Didn't you used to hate it when other kids mixed the colours together though? I used to shake my internal head in disbelief. Plasticine is what I think of when I hear 'plastic clay', but plasticine is oil-based and therefore non-drying, whereas plastic clay is pottery clay that can be manipulated but still retains its shape without cracking.

One of my favourite terms and processes in pottery is 'crawling'. It's really hard to describe, you need to see it to believe it. The photo I have taken for this blog shows three pieces of pottery by Keeeps potters (Sophie Eveleigh from the UK and Jolana Pineda from the US) with the crawling effect. It is basically a beautiful parting and contraction of the glaze on the surface of a piece of pottery during drying or firing, resulting in unglazed areas bordered by coalesced glaze. Crawling is a sight to behold and perfectly imperfect in my eyes.

And a final pottery word is one that I find fascinating. Did you know that pottery can make sounds? I know, I know, you think I am going mad, but it is true! Enter 'crazing', sounds like 'crazy', which is what I thought I was going when I heard a glazed bowl pinging at me the other day. It is a fault in the glaze due to high stress, I think caused by incompatibility of the clay and the glaze, and it results in a noise that can sometimes result in cracking. Crazing, I know.

I think that is all for now but I will think of others and add to the article when I do. 

Before I go, I just wanted to point out that these slightly confusing words are not because potters are trying to make pottery a dark art that you can't be part of. Far from it, I have not yet met a pretentious potter, in fact they are all lovely and down to earth (excuse the pun), and extremely keen for everyone to start potting. Perhaps these odd words are because it is an age-old process that has words lingering from former periods of history. The origin and history of pottery terms is another blog for another day.

If you are a potter reading this and have another view of a word or two that I have tried to translate, let me know. I find the language of pottery a fascinating subject with never-ending learning opportunities!

Keep throwing!
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